I spent all day trying to think of an F word (snicker) for this post. I kept hitting on fantasy, but the intellectual brain said, “Don’t be silly; fantasy has nothing to do with research.”
The lizard brain said, “Sure it does! If you’re writing about fantastical creatures, wouldn’t it make sense for you to research their origins?”
It’s thin, I know.
Fantasy literature deals with subjects that are removed from reality. Many fantasy writers invent elaborate worlds and the creatures that inhabit them, but others mold new versions of those that have gone before.
Horror is a subgenre of fantasy, so let’s discuss vampires, since our dear Count Orlok above suggested it. This monster shows up in many cultures, but what we think of as a vampire first came to us out of Eastern Europe. Originally, it was a demonic, reanimated corpse, not the pleasant, even erotic being of later fiction.
Abraham “Bram” Stoker gets most of the credit for bringing the vampire into the world of the Victorian drawing room. In folklore of the Balkan and Transylvanian area, vampires are generally a peasant myth; Stoker elevated the monster to a station in life in which he could meet and threaten his genteel heroes.
Stoker’s decision to make over the monster from a reanimated corpse visiting its family in the night into a wealthy and powerful nobleman changed the vampire tale for years to come. Dracula, first published in 1897, became a hit even then. The novel has not been out of print — ever.
I’ve read it; you should too. For a Victorian book, it kicks ass.
But Stoker wasn’t even the first to do this. The original creator of a high-born vampire was actually physician Dr. John William Polidori. His short story The Vampyre contained the first high society bloodsucker. He loosely based his monster on the fragment of a story written by his most famous patient, the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron.
Even the story of the story fascinates. Polidori wrote it during the summer of 1816, when he, Byron, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and Shelley’s fiancée Mary Wollstoncraft Godwin (later Shelley), and Mary’s stepsister Claire Claremont had traveled to Lake Geneva.
Thanks to a huge volcanic eruption, the weather really sucked that year. In fact, it was actually called “The Year without a Summer.” It rained so much they had to spend all their time indoors, and one night after reading from a book of ghost stories, Byron suggested they each try their hand at writing one.
Byron wrote and discarded the fragment later appropriated and revised by Polidori. Shelley penned a story as well, and Mary, after a nightmare caused by their earlier reading, produced the first scribblings of what later became Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus.
You can read Polidori’s story here, if you like.
I did this research for a paper long ago; that’s how I know so much about vampires. I shared it with you to show you something.
The vampire has certain characteristics. No matter how you mix it up, you have to stick with the basics. It is what is known as an archetype, which is a first form or prototype. Everyone knows what a vampire is. If you’re writing a straight archetype and you stray too far from canon, you run the risk of ridicule.
I know the Twilight series made lots of money, but it wasn’t because Meyer’s vampires were scary. Edward Cullen didn’t even have any fangs.
Anne Rice took the noble vampire a bit further when she turned the creature into a romantic figure in Interview with the Vampire. But Lestat de Lioncourt, the hapless Louis, the vengeful Armand, and especially the child vampire Claudia were still quite monstrous.
From Nosferatu all the way through Buffy the Vampire Slayer, writers have taken the archetypical bloodsucker in all sorts of directions. But he’s still a thirsty demon at heart.
Speaking of new directions, one of the freshest takes on the Devil I’ve seen recently is Joe Hill’s Horns. Who is Joe Hill, you ask?
Horns is about a guy accused of the murder of his former girlfriend. He wakes up one morning with big horns growing out of his head. They have the eerie effect of making people tell him stuff he doesn’t want to know — or does he?
If you haven’t read Horns or seen the film with Daniel Radcliffe, and you’re not too squeamish about horror, do it. DO EET. In fact, do it anyway, even if you are squeamish.
Breaking rules requires you to know them. So study up on your monsters, fairies, werewolves, and ghosties. Before you monkey with the archetype, make sure you aren’t straying too far afield. Readers like it when you do something new, but they get even more excited when they recognize it first.